Three tombs of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) have been discovered at Mawangdui in the eastern suburb of Changsha in Hunan Province. They belonged to the marquis of Dai, Li Cang, his consort, Lady Dai, and their son. These tombs have thousands of artifacts including bamboo objects, lacquerwares, musical instruments, ceramic vessels, wooden figures, silk paintings, garments and manuscripts.

The three Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) tombs at Mawangdui in the eastern suburb of Changsha in Hunan Province belonged to the marquis of Dai, Li Cang (tomb 2, d. 193 BCE); his consort, Lady Dai (tomb 1, d. after 168 BCE), whose name was Xin Zhui; and their son (tomb 3, d. 168 BCE). These burials, excavated from 1972 to 1974, were rectangular earthen pits with a ramp in the north and by two huge earthen mounds on the top, each about 40 meters in diameter and 16 meters in height.

The tomb of Lady Dai was the largest of the three, measuring 19.5 meters from north to south and 17.8 meters from east to west. The burial chamber was filled with 10,000 kilograms of charcoal and sealed with white (gaoling) clay 1–1.3 meters thick, a practice aimed at creating an environment with a stable temperature and humidity so the body of the deceased and accompanying burial goods could be well preserved. Astonishingly, the body of Lady Dai has survived more than two thousand years. In the four compartments of the outer coffin (guo) were fourteen hundred burial goods, including bamboo objects and strips, lacquerware, musical instruments, ceramic vessels, silks, and wooden figures. Among the burial goods was a plain silk garment described in the archeological report as “as thin as a cicada wing” and “as light as the mist.” It weighs only 49 grams, a marvelous example of advanced silk-making technology in early Han China.

The body of Lady Dai, dressed in two garments and wrapped in eighteen layers of shroud, was laid in four layers of painted coffins. The outermost coffin was painted with black lacquer, the second with more than 110 scenes showing mythical animals and figures traveling in clouds against a black background, and the third with auspicious motifs, including dragons, tigers, vermilion birds, and mythical figures in a vermilion ground. The innermost coffin was decorated with brocade and tied with six to seven layers of silk ribbons. A T-shaped silk painting about 2 meters long was draped over the innermost coffin. It is identified as feiyi (a flying garment) by some scholars based on the inventory list of the burial goods recorded on the bamboo strips. The painting was likely a funerary banner that depicted the soul of Lady Dai traveling from the underground to the world of the living and ascending to heaven. The underground world depicted in the lower section of the painting includes water creatures and a robust man holding the Earth; the middle section of the painting framed by two intertwined dragons in a bi (disk) represents the world of the living, showing family members mourning the death of Lady Dai and a portrait of her; on the top is the representation of heaven inhabited by dragons in swirling clouds and deer-like creatures ridden by mythical figures. A mythical figure shown entwined by a snake and identified as Fu Xi (male) or Nu Wa (female), the progenitor of the Chinese, stands in the center of heaven flanked by the sun with a raven and the moon; a toad appears at each corner.

The tomb of the marquis of Dai, tomb 2, has been severely looted. A major discovery from tomb 3 is twenty-eight individual manuscripts written on silk (boshu). Those manuscripts include different editions of ancient classics, such as the Zhouyi and Laozi, covering politics, warfare, astronomy, medicine, nutrition, physiognomy (the art of discovering temperament and character from outward appearance), and divination. Many of these editions had been thought to be irretrievably lost.

In addition, five hundred lacquerware items, including food and wine containers as well as furniture, were discovered in tombs 1 and 3. Many of them were manufactured at the official workshops at Chengdu, a major center of lacquer production in the Han dynasty.

Further Reading

Hunansheng bowuguan. (1981). Mawangdui Han mu yanjiu [The study of Han tombs at Mawangdui]. Chengshe, China: Hunan renmin chubanshe.

Hunansheng bowuguan, Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo. (1973). Changsha Mawangdui yihao Han mu [The number one Han tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha]. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe.

Hunansheng bowuguan, Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo. (1974). Changsha Mawangdui ersanhao mu fajue jianbao [A brief excavation report of tomb no. 2 and no. 2 at Mawangdui, Changsha]. Wenwu 7, 39–48, 63.

Shed no tears until seeing the coffin.


Bú jiàn guān cai bú luò lèi

Source: Sun, Yan. (2009). Mawangdui Han Tombs. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1428–1429. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Mawangdui Han Tombs (Mǎwángduī Hàn Mù 马王堆汉墓)|Mǎwángduī Hàn Mù 马王堆汉墓 (Mawangdui Han Tombs)

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